Rabbi Mordecai Finley
Simple Wisdom, Step Two – Insight
I began my “path to simple wisdom” last week with the value of “respect” (including its close synonym in many usages, “honor”). I want to clarify that value a bit for this week, and then add another step.
By “respect” I don’t mean that we actually have to admire another person. I mean respect (or honor) the value of another person as a human being. “Act respectfully” might even be a better way to put it, but that turns the value of respect into a behavior. It is virtuous to act respectfully; the inner experience of another human as being worthy of respect takes us into wisdom.
Remember, in thinking about wisdom, I am not taking the route of trying to define the term, but rather by conjuring up in my mind a person of wisdom. What does a person of wisdom do when they encounter another person whose politics they detest? What does a person of wisdom do when their spouse, child or parent infuriates them? We sometimes face incredibly difficult stresses in our family, work, community and political lives. At a given moment, we might not admire the other person at all. We might actually have feelings of repugnance. As I imagine my wise person, I imagine them noting those unruly feelings in the ego self, calming the toxic waves, taking a deep breath, and then engaging feelings of respect for another human being. I have my own little meditation, which you have probably heard. I imagine this other person taking their own journey to their own death. Their journey might be misguided and wrong headed, or maybe mine is. And here we are: in my journey to my death and in their journey to their death, we have collided.
What do we make of this collision? Try to find the spark within the husk, to find some redemptive value in this entanglement? I hope so.
If I were teaching some young person the path of wisdom, a person just starting out on life, love, work, community, I would say, first, learn to be respectful of others whatever the provocation, and perhaps even in the interior of your being, experience the other person’s value as a human being. Draw your lines, make your boundaries (kind, clear, firm), further your moral vision, fight your fight, as it were, all within the framework of wisdom and virtue. This step is lifelong, difficult work.
The second step toward wisdom, a lifelong difficult step, is insight. A wise person knows deeply what is happening in their own inner life. They understand their shape of their ego self, including the wayward and destructive aspects. A person of wisdom is on a journey to understanding the contours of their soul.
This insight - self-knowledge - in a person of wisdom can be translated into an understanding of others. Understanding others does not mean that we necessarily have sympathy for them, but it often might. Understanding others does not mean we agree with them. Insight means, at its core, that just as we can strive to understand our own inner processes, we can strive to understand, as much as possible, the inner lives and processes of others. A wise person notes carefully before they judge, but will judge fairly when they must.
This value of insight into oneself and into others expands into insight into the processes of people as dyads, as families, friends, organizations and communities. In other words, a wise person has insight into the dynamics of human nature.
What is the practice of insight? I think it is very simple. We can say to ourselves, “what is up with me?” “Why am I thinking, feeling, behaving this way?” And then we turn those questions toward other people.
If we are particularly wise and courageous, we can actually ask other people about what they are thinking, feeling, saying and doing – not to refute, but because we are truly curious about the shape of their lives.